Inside Track – Sir Alan Langlands: Building a platform for changing times

As we reach the end of a year of real and tangible progress at the University across a range of issues, we are celebrating the award of significant European research grants.


The European Research Council (ERC) has just announced awards of €573m to mid-career researchers from 40 countries, enabling them to build their teams and maximise the impact of their research. The award holders will carry out their projects at universities and research centres in 21 different countries across Europe, with 55 grants – the highest number of any country – coming to the UK.

The overall ERC budget from 2014 to 2020 is more than €13bn, as part of the Horizon 2020 programme. To date, the ERC has funded 9,000 leading researchers at various stages of their careers, and more than 50,000 postdocs, PhD researchers and others working at the frontiers of research. Such is the power of European partnership.

It is against this background that I congratulate Robbie Williams, Professor of Theoretical Philosophy, and Pietro Valdastri, Professor of Robotics and Autonomous Systems, for winning major consolidator grants in this round. Professor Williams’ €2m research programme – Group Thinking: New Foundations – aims to transform understanding of collective representation, its nature and its significance. It seeks to reveal the underlying unity between the facts that constitute the beliefs and desires of individuals and those of groups. Professor Valdastri’s €2.7m research programme – Novel Lifesaving Magnetic Tentacles – aims to test the fundamental principles that could enable intelligent tentacle-like robots to help surgeons by reaching deep into the human anatomy. This study will bring together robotics, magnetics, manufacturing and medicine, and is the first time such robotic systems have been proposed.

Separate to the ERC grants, Dr Paolo Actis, from the School of Electronic and Electrical Engineering, has received €4m from the European Commission (EC) to lead a new project called Sentinel, training academic and industry researchers to apply ‘nanoelectrochemistry’ techniques to challenges from neurodegeneration to developing new energy materials.

In addition, Bruce Turnbull, Professor of Biomolecular Chemistry, has secured a further €4million from the EC. His highly interdisciplinary synBIOcarb European Training Network brings together chemists, structural biologists, biophysicists, cell biologists and protein engineers – who are pioneering the development of Synthetic Glycobiology – together with four SMEs that are leading industrial innovation in glycoscience and protein engineering.

Seen together, all these projects underline the rich diversity of our research, from the fundamental to the applied.

Since the Brexit referendum on 23 June 2016, the University has been awarded 100 grants by the EU with a value in excess of €51m – the seventh best record of any UK university.

It is therefore no surprise that I am keeping a close eye on events in Westminster. The agreement on the UK’s exit from the EU (now confirmed by the UK and the 27 EU nations) and the outline declaration for a future UK-EU relationship include a number of commitments that would provide greater certainty for universities, students and staff. This is, of course, subject to Parliamentary approval, with the vote on the Prime Minister’s proposed Brexit deal due to take place on Tuesday 11 December – the day this article is first published*.

From the narrow perspective of higher education, ratification of the agreement would provide welcome commitments in relation to EU citizens’ rights; ongoing UK participation in Horizon 2020 and the Erasmus+ programme until their end dates; and the creation of a post- Brexit transition period lasting until (at least) 31 December 2020, during which there would be no substantive changes to immigration rules for EEA nationals entering the UK.

Further, the current outline declaration for a future UK-EU relationship lays foundations for the “terms for the UK’s participation in Union programmes, subject to the conditions set out in the corresponding (EU) instruments, such as in science and innovation, culture and education”, which would translate to the UK’s role in Horizon Europe and the next Erasmus+ programme, both due to commence in 2021. On the one hand, this leaves the way open to negotiate continued UK involvement in these important programmes; on the other, we have to recognise that the declaration is a high-level political document, leaving many key questions unanswered about future immigration policy for students and staff and the detailed terms of participation in Horizon Europe and Erasmus+.

In the unlikely event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, the Government has confirmed it will protect several key areas unilaterally, with a particular emphasis on EU citizens’ rights, the position of EU students starting their studies in the UK in 2019, and the importance of underwriting existing commitments on structural funds, Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+.

At an operational level, the University is now part of the EU Settlement Scheme pilot project and work is underway on a wide range of issues that underpin our education and research mission. Given the significant downside of a ‘no deal’, I remain optimistic that good education and research relationships between the UK and the EU will remain in place in the future.

Brexit is, of course, only one of many new challenges to emerge in higher education during the past year. These include immigration, student funding policy and discussions about the best way forward for the Universities Superannuation Scheme. Separately and in combination, all four represent fundamental change and major risks to the future direction and funding of universities during the next few years.

Leeds is in a strong position to meet these challenges. The 2015-20 Strategic Plan, which has already achieved advances in education and research, will be carried through to completion. This includes some major upfront investments, including £150m in our academic staff and £520m to provide cutting-edge facilities and equipment for students and staff. Assuming that the key benefits are realised from these investments, we will have an excellent platform for the future.

The University also has a strong balance sheet, which means we can tackle the external financial risks in an intelligent and measured way. However, the nature and scale of these risks mean we cannot simply depend on increasing income during the next few years. On the contrary, we will have to slow down our commitment to further investment; carry out a comprehensive assessment of our cost base and embrace new ways of working to ensure continued academic and financial sustainability. This will be central to the Integrated Planning Exercise (IPE) – the University’s annual cycle of updating its planning assumptions and five-year financial forecasts – which will draw to a conclusion in spring 2019.

The first few months of next year will cast light on the likely impacts of these external challenges – Brexit, funding, immigration and pensions. It will be important to prepare for future developments in a measured and systematic way, whilst completing our existing Strategic Plan and articulating a longer-term vision for the University, which will enable us to thrive deep into the 2020s. None of this can be handled without detailed engagement, discussion and consultation with staff and students, and this will be a feature of the coming year.

Despite uncertain times, I hope all students and staff will have a restful and restorative break with friends and family during the holiday period… and I take this opportunity to thank you for all you have achieved in 2018 – this is much admired and greatly appreciated.

*Please note this article was written before the Government’s announcement that the Brexit vote will be delayed.

Posted in: